An article of mine, which I developed in 2015-2016, was published in the eContact journal in 2017.

Abstract: By the middle of the 20th century, composers of electronic and electroacoustic music had begun to reenvision the concert hall. Buttressed by theories of acousmatic sound articulated by Pierre Schaeffer and his associates at the Groupe de recherches musicales (GRM) in Paris, loudspeakers replaced the hidden orchestras of the 19th century. The orientation of the listener, however, would evolve much more slowly. As an alternative to the tradition of electronic sound production that continued to organize its audiences in relation to the stage, we will look towards radiophonic art as cultivating a different mode of “live” listening and in turn a different relationship between audience and work. The direction that Schaeffer led is perhaps not surprising, given that he began his career producing work for radio. The more general experience of listening to the radio — be it by headset, in private, in public or driving in a car — freed listening from the baggage of earlier performance paradigms oriented around theatricality and the stage, which encouraged one to focus on what is seen as well as what is heard. The novel transmission method made possible by wireless radios also created a space — institutional and otherwise — for experimentation and rethinking (or circumventing) this tradition. Though the discourse of music, in particular, continues to be mired in the values of stage production (authenticity, virtuosity, spectacle), the ubiquitous experience of radio listening created new imaginaries, and new sonic spaces, that have yet to be fully realized. This is in part related to the continued “privileging of music as the art of sound in modern Western culture.”  Through my emphasis on the perception of sound as experience, as well as attention to the broader constitution of radio as embedded in media ecology rather than as a singular medium, I hope to avoid the aporia of content versus medium. Because audiences are in part discursive constructs, and because the creation of new forms of work cultivates new modes of listening, I argue that the radiophonic work offers a paradigm for sonic arts in general to finally leave the stage behind.

How quick we are to believe our present moment is new, different and incommensurable with the past. This is especially true in our fetishization of new technologies, as even a cursory glance at the recent (popular and scholarly) literature on digital audio will show. A reliable chorus of commentators continues to blame the dematerialization of music for the alleged decline of the music industry. 

“But wasn’t radio broadcast the first dematerialization of music?” This question was posed by the composer Francisco López in a recent essay in which he argues that our renewed attention to immateriality will help lead us “back to an ethereal state of listening” (López 2014). That is, when there is no meaningful distinction to be made between “original” and “copy”, when we are “empty of any imaginable materialized music,” we are able to listen as did listeners before the advent of recorded sound and its attendant fetishizations. I would resist the conservative implication of a “going back to”, which always carries something of a reactionary tinge, but certainly there’s something to be gained from problematizing received notions of listening.

Radio broadcasting isn’t truly immaterial, of course, nor is the streaming or downloading of audio. You can store a lot of music on a 2 TB hard drive, certainly, but after all it does take up some space. It can only hold a finite amount, and each drive takes up physical space. The material of the drive components had to be extracted from the earth, fabricated, assembled by collective labour. Downloading and streaming necessitate servers, optical wires, a broader telecommunications infrastructure and the electricity required to power it all. In the case of radio, likewise, we have radio stations, broadcast equipment, radio towers and so on, and the listener needs a radio receiver and speakers or headphones in order to tune in. So, in these ways, radio broadcasting and listening, can still be understood in quite material terms. But the reception, the individual (and collective) experience of listening is immaterial in ways that watching a concert, playing music or listening to physical media are not. The kind of audience produced through “dematerialized” listening is distinct from the tradition of stage performance, in that the listener’s attention is fixed primarily on the sonic material.

The present line of reflection stems from two related questions: the question of modes of listening and the question of orientation. Put another way, I am interested in how media and architecture shape music, specifically how the role of the audience contributes to the actualization of a work. Oddly enough, my line of enquiry begins with a painting.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1533) foregrounds, and plays with, the orientation of the viewer and the way in which the content of a work orients the viewer in relation to it. Giotto introduced a vast improvement in perspective and depth in the early 14th century, however, it was during the Italian Renaissance of the Quattrocento that mathematical perspective was pioneered in its application in graphical depiction. For example, “The Ambassadors” assumes the viewer will assume a particular position in order to view the portrait “properly”, acknowledging this and playing with it by using the technique of anamorphosis to disguise a skull in the bottom portion of the painting. From the “proper” perspective there appears to be a white diagonal blur, but when the viewer shifts perspective in order to be much closer to the canvas and looking up from the hard right, the image reveals itself to be a skull. This painting foregrounds, and plays with, the orientation of the viewer and the way in which the content of a work positions the viewer in relation to it. There are, of course, many examples of paintings that are unrelated to Cartesian perspectivalism: Japanese scroll painting, abstract expressionism, etc. At least for our present purposes, I do not aim to make a normative judgment — I don’t claim that any one system is necessarily better than another. But what is important is that in recognizing that there exist alternatives to the way we tend to do things, we denaturalize the familiar way of doing things and, in so doing, create spaces for alternative approaches. We might ask, has music had its “Ambassadors” moment? What would anamorphosis in music sound like?

The nature of a work’s distribution is key to its definition or classification.

We should begin at the stage of production. What does a mixing engineer imagine while they are working? What do they visualize, literally, while looking at waveforms and Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)? The visual nature of audio production has been reinforced through the visual interfaces of commonplace DAWs, representing the experience of sound as a visual form akin to writing, meant to be “read” from left to right. Spatial metaphors abound as we visualize listening to a mix by imagining the stereo field as a virtual stage. This could certainly be a useful tool for discussing musical analysis with non-specialist language. But what does it say about the musical imagination when “the stage” exists always already there.

One might say that an art form is defined by its means of dispersion. That is, the nature of a work’s distribution (be it as performance or playback of a recording media) is key to its definition or classification. As such, the site of listening should be a privileged means of studying a work. While concert spaces for musical performance in the European tradition evolved over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, and continue to do so with multi-channel halls with advanced acoustics, these spaces are still constrained largely by tradition and by the paradigm of performance. Why can’t we imagine listening sessions that simply involve a dark room playing back a prepared multi-channel piece?

Read the entire article here.


One thought on ““Radiophonic Arts and the Problem of the Stage”

  1. Pingback: Back to the Lab | sound propositions

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